January 4, 2008
There were no buses going to the border with Colombia, so I shared a taxi with a Venezuelan family on vacation. The taxi was a 1974 Chevy Malibu beast that immediately put the song "Stick Shifts and Safety Belts" into my head. The driver and the dad got to talking about gasoline, and when the dad said it cost 4500 bolivares (90 cents) to fill the tank in his new Volkswagen, the driver remarked how nice it must be to spend half as much money on gas as he did. So just like taxes, no matter how low gas prices go, people still complain about them.
On the way to the border, there were seven police checkpoints, sometimes within three minutes of each other. Only one guy searched my bag, and it was of the quick, "I've got better things to do than mess with this gringo" variety. Another annoyance happened when we waited in line for half an hour to pay a toll to cross a bridge. Other cars kept jumping ahead in line, much like people here do when they're not in vehicles, and my driver had to make sure his bumper was practically touching the car in front of us to protect his position. But the worst thing was that because of the country's falling economy, the toll price was only six cents. Even by Venezuelan standards, we probably wasted more in gas waiting in line than the toll cost. The crazy toll booth and having to show my passport nonstop made a ride that should have taken less than an hour (look at a map and you'll see what I mean) take four.
The line to get stamped out of the country wasn't long, but it ended up taking over an hour because there was only one person stamping passports. Thousands of people crossed that border daily, yet the Venezuelan government felt the need to employ twenty people at the border to stand around and do nothing, but only one to stamp passports. It was socialism at its finest.
When I finally was officially out of Venezuela, I walked across the border to the Colombian side and saw that the line was even longer. Judging by how slow things were moving, I figured it could take three more hours to get through. I got lucky, though, because the dad from my taxi had been saving my spot and was near the front. It quickly became apparent that an angry mob mentality was in effect because every five minutes someone tried to skip to the front and practically got their head torn off. People were giving me lots of stares, so I laid low as best as someone who's 6'3" in a land of midgets could while the dad fended for me. An American I had just met in line at the Venezuelan side started talking to me and the jeers from the crowd were immediate. The dad gave me a look that said "I'm protecting you, not him," and when an official opened the door, he darted through shortly before the crowd could execute him. Later he told me he had never seen anything like that debacle, even in his travels through Africa.
I wanted to go to Santa Marta, but because the passport stamping line was taking so long, I had to wait in a bus for two hours for more passengers to show up. I left Maracaibo as early in the morning as I could, but I still didn't get to Santa Marta until late at night. So after three days of straight travel, I was finally back somewhere I could relax. I had to make the quick journey because my cash was running low, and if you don't have dollars in Venezuela, it's more expensive than Europe.